Saturday, November 19, 2011

Nikky Finney Wins National Book Award (and some other news)

If you know me on Facebook, you know that even though I am far away from Kentucky now, I am ecstatic over Nikky Finney's recent winning of the National Book Award for poetry (for Head Off and Split). She is a Kentucky resident, a professor at the University of Kentucky, and a founding member of the Affrilachian Poets. Below is a video of the award ceremony from LexGo. The award announcement for poetry starts at about 12:30. At about 17:00 Finney gives her acceptance poem/speech.

I first heard Nikky Finney when I was in high school. One of my writing mentors, Judy Milford, had lent me some books, including a copy of Finney's Rice, so that I could read some Kentucky poets in preparation for Kentucky's Governor's School for the Arts. When Nikky Finney showed up at our GSA class, I asked her to sign Judy's book as a thank you.

This story segues nicely into some other (slightly more nepotistic) accomplishments I've been meaning to acknowledge.

Judy Milford now has a book of poetry out: Surfacing (Finishing Line Press)an exploration of grief and faith in the everyday. I've been waiting a long time for this book.

And my aunt, Rachel Clark, created the cover art and designed the book cover for the recently released Circle of Law (Xlibris) by Lia Londona Young Adult fantasy adventure. (I really should get a picture of the back cover on here too, so you can see her awesome cityscape.)

Congrats all around!

Also, my artist sister and I have started a joint Tumblr account:  Magical Bipolar Sofa. We'll hopefully be putting some of our own work up there, but it's mainly a catch-all for reblogging things we find interesting, amusing, or wonderful, but that don't fit our individual blogs. In other words, it's awfully strange. I don't know whether to recommend that you click the link or that you stay very far away.

(Note: The second book image I stole from my aunt.)

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Sidekicks by Jack D. Ferraiolo

(Warning: The book discussed in today’s post deals with young male sexuality. Since I have never been teenage boy, this is bound to be awkward. Since I am full of unverified opinions on all kinds of topics, this is bound to be very soap-box-y.)

Now that I’m blogging again, what work of classic literature am I going to tackle first?

I’ve been on a bit of a superhero kick lately (no pun intended), and I have a long-standing love for juvenile/YA fiction.  

Sidekicks (Amulet Books 2011), a middle-grade superhero novel by Jack D. Ferraiolo, seemed like a perfect fit.

I enjoyed the middle of this book. Once the arch-nemesis is revealed the story picks up speed, the dialogue becomes both more interesting and more believable, and the plot takes several unexpected turns. It was all good, action-driven fun. 

But the beginning and the end gave me some problems. 

The book is marketed as middle school fiction (Amazon suggests ages 10 and up), and for the most part it reads like light-hearted, slightly satirical middle grade fare. But the story begins with the hero, Scott Hutchinson (a.k.a. Bright Boy) rescuing a woman and, to his great embarrassment, experiencing an erection. All while news teams film him and shout insults.

A recurring debate in juvenile fiction is whether to mention sex and puberty and how much to mention. To oversimplify, the arguments for introducing sexual changes generally fall under two categories: 1) that this makes the story more realistic and the characters more relatable and 2) that this lets kids know that puberty is normal and nothing to be ashamed of.

Sidekicks sets itself up as a realistic (give or take a little for the sake of comedy) comic book story. Phantom Justice and Bright Boy fight in our New York City (rather than in a stand-in like Gotham or Metropolis). They have our technology and something of a medical explanation for superpowers. Yet the morning news show continually replays the footage of Scott’s boner. I had some trouble buying that premise. It’s no surprise that the media can be cruel to young celebrities (Rebecca Black, anyone?). But the coverage Ferraiolo depicts seems more likely for late night shows and internet sites. And the news plays nothing but that clip for about twenty minutes. No news day is that slow. 

When Scott goes to school, everyone is talking about what a “perv” Bright Boy is. Everyone. It would be one thing if the character only felt that everyone was talking about it. That would be realistic. That would be teenagehood in a nutshell. But even the kindergarteners are talking about it. Scott’s mentor doesn’t have any encouragement to offer beyond, “Yeah, you embarrassed yourself on national television. Forget about it and train.”

What exactly is the message middle school boys are supposed to get from this? “Your sexual desires exerting themselves will result in the single most shameful and embarrassing moment of your life. And everyone will notice. And no one will forget it. And you will live eternally in the shadow of your shame. (Or at least, until you learn to dress better and manage to kiss a girl. Because then you will be virile and manly. And not just a perv.)”

Or maybe I’m over-thinking this. Maybe the message is simply that erections are hi-LAR-ious. 

Someone who’s actually experienced the boy’s version of puberty can correct me, but I don’t sense that this book is setting middle-schoolers up for a healthy understanding of their bodies. 

Another problem I had with the beginning is a problem I often have with stories marketed toward middle/high school students. (Here’s the point where I step away from Sidekicks specifically and climb onto another of my soapboxes.)

It's a story-telling trend to try to garner sympathy for the main character by placing him or her in embarrassing situations right off the bat. We all love an underdog. The unpopular kid. The under-appreciated employee. The long-suffering sibling/child/parent. We’ve all felt this way. We see ourselves in these characters. And this setup makes it easy later on to show that the character’s circumstances have changed.

The pitfalls here are two-fold. First, being a character the reader/viewer pities is not quite the same thing as being a character the reader/viewer relates to. Sometimes, the writer wants to garner too much sympathy too quickly and ends up putting the main character into horrifically embarrassing situations. At this point the reader may withdraw emotionally from the main character because the reader does not want to see him/herself as capable of suffering such embarrassment (particularly if the character seems unusually passive in the face of his/her difficulties).

And the second pitfall is that moving from unpopular to popular, unsuccessful to successful, or uncool to cool, is an easy change to depict, but it does not indicate any sort of lasting change in the character. Often we understand “more popular” to be shorthand for “more confident and self-assured.” But self-confidence, by definition, comes from the inside and cannot be given through the sudden approval of peers. It’s important to show that the change is more than external. And since character change is plot (generally), cheap changes are like long journeys that go nowhere. 

Moving back to the book I’m supposedly reviewing, as I said, I enjoyed the plot twists in the middle of the book. It’s not often that I read a book for middle-schoolers where I’m surprised by the plot turns. I appreciated Ferraiolo’s inclusion of modern technology. (I laughed when Scott pointed out that his phone can probably do ninety percent of what Phantom Justice’s Main Crime Computer can do.) I liked the parody of the whole Batman and Robin setup. And I particularly enjoyed the villains.

A few hours after I finished Sidekicks, Fridge Logic started to kick in. The ending flowed naturally out of the rest of the story, but some of the solutions could have been explained better or hinted at earlier on. And there were loose ends. I suspect a sequel. But I have no idea if a particular character is dead. I get the impression I’m supposed to know whether or not this character is alive but the author just forgot to make it clear.

I think Ferraiolo is a good writer, and I suspect that with a little more care and attention Sidekicks could have been a better book.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Moving Update: Notes from the Northwest

What does Bethany do during those long stretches when she's not blogging? Generally, she shuffles commas for money, writes, gets sinus infections, and reads books which she then fails to blog about.

Oh. And she moves across the country.

In May, my family and I moved from western Kentucky to Washington state’s Olympic Peninsula. (Finally, a legitimate excuse for being behind on all the things I'm usually behind on anyway!)

There was (and is) a lot of work to be done on the house and not enough space for everyone and all our boxes, so I spent two weeks (which quickly became three months) in Salem, Oregon with my wonderful grandmother.

A quick recap of things done and seen in Oregon:

Hanging out with family and learning how to gamble.

                                       Birthday parties.

                                         Memorial Day.

Fourth of July.

                             Reader's Guide bookstore.

Salem Public Library.

Powell's Books. This photo is of my favorite room in Powell's. (And note those lovely wooden shelves.)

I’d been to Powell’s when I was younger, and it wasn’t as big as I remembered, but it’s still huge. You need the map. (In my imagination, Powell's was the size of Disneyland, except better because it was entirely books.)

There were quirky little things all over the store, especially in the Literature and Fiction section: handwritten notes with employee recommendations, search tips on alternate spellings of authors's names, mini-reviews, etc.

(See the size of this Graham Greene section?)

I wanted to get some photos that showed how large Powell’s is, but I was a little distracted.

English Country Dancing. That red blur is me.

Dancing that requires an understanding of left vs. right is generally not for me. But I loved English Country Dancing, though it took all of my focus to follow the instructions. I've gained a new respect for Elizabeth Bennet, who could converse and dance simultaneously.

Most of my things (read: books) are still in boxes, but I'm happy to be back "home" in Washington now. It's beautiful here: ocean, mountains, really tall evergreens. I can't get over how tall some of these trees are.
Here's a tree looming over our roof.

Or for scale: Here's my family and some of the trees at the Dungeness Recreation Area.

I'm slowly settling in, but I'm still missing a certain... Kentuckiness. Things are different here. Not better or worse, just different. I enjoy meeting new people and seeing new places (though I still spend far too much time in front of my computer screen), but I keep wishing someone would say y'all.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Another Reason to Love Used Books

I buy used books because they're cheap. Given the choice between one new hardcover and three slightly mangled paperbacks, I will choose the paperbacks.

But sometimes, used books contain more than monetary rewards.

Like this.

In case you can't tell what this is, I'll show you the back.

Yep. That's Anne Rice's house. And this postcard is from the quaint days when fan clubs used to advertise through the mail. I think I found this in my copy of One Hundred Years of Solitude, but I'm not sure. I've been moving it around. Postcards are the perfect size for marking trade paperbacks.

In my much highlighted copy of Their Eyes Were Watching God, I discovered these gems, reminiscent of an early xkcd

"Like the Breakfast Club... except without the high school... and with more ARMIES." I really wish I knew what that was about.

(P.S. Click the images to see larger versions.)

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Bethany ___ Politics with a ___, and then ___, Quickly

Normally, I don't like to touch politics—the same way I don't like to touch rotting zombie flesh. But last night I watched the State of the Union address like the good civic-minded person I pretend to be. (This does eventually have a connection to language; I promise.)

I've watched a fair number of State of the Union addresses, over several administrations. And I find myself wondering, Can we all just agree—not as Republicans or Democrats or too-cool-for-your-party Independents—but as Americans, that State of the Union addresses are boring?

They're basically recap. We're really just watching to see if the President is going to sneak in something awesome (i.e. Our New Inalienable Right to Chocolate) or horrifying (i.e. Selling Idaho to China Will Help Us Balance the Budget). And because all the good TV shows have been postponed.

Now that I've gotten that off my chest, do you remember Mad Libs? I sure do. As a kid, I learned the difference between adverbs and adjectives from those crazy fill-in-the-blank stories.

Well, kindly gives us State of the Union Mad Libs. There's more to the article, but the Mad Libs made my night.

(Heads up: The rest of the article contains some swearing—as is typical of articles.)

P.S. Thanks, Caitie, for pointing this out.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Last Library Book Sale in Kentucky (for me)

It snowed yesterday, which is just rare enough an occurrence in western Kentucky to be noteworthy.

Yesterday was also the opening day of the McCracken County Friends of the Library winter book sale. Practicality tells me that the last thing I need is another box of books to drag across the country, but to paraphrase my mom, "Neither rain, nor snow, nor heat... nor common sense shall keep the Brengans from the library book sale."

I spent almost as much time talking to people as I did buying books this year. And I was reminded that high on the list of things I'm going to miss when I move are the bi-annual book sales, the Friends of the Library volunteers, the McCracken County (and the Graves County) Library's book club, and the library staff.

As you can see, I was more restrained than usual.

But I'm pleased with my purchases. This was one of those years where it seemed like I had a future self/reading-doppelganger who had read the books I wanted and then donated them to the sale. I'm still floating on my "great book buys" high.

On another note, I wanted some photos of our cardinals against the snow, but the local wildlife all fled from the photographer in squeaky snow boots.

I had to settle for other signs of life.

The neighbor's cat.

A rabbit.

A dog. (And my hand, for scale.)

Lots of birds.

Is it just me, or does that last set of bird footprints look a like a tiny pair of human hands?

There's probably a poem in that somewhere.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

New Year, New Home, New Blog Post...

Confession: I want to become famous.

I want to be well-known and a perfect enigma.

I want to be loved by the reading public without anyone knowing anything as personal as my favorite brand of mustard.

I want people to wander around bookstores saying, "Bethany Brengan—we know nothing about her, except that she's brilliant!"

Apparently, I want to be Marilynne Robinson.

Blogging probably isn't the way to achieve this goal, but a good friend who I rarely see* recently told me that I should update my blog and "include stuff that's, you know, actually about you. And add some photos."


For those of you who haven't heard, I've been (and am still) struggling with some exhausting health issues. And I will soon be moving from western Kentucky to Washington state.

Illness and the general instability of life have made it difficult to keep up with friends. Moving halfway across the country isn't going to make this any simpler.

So I'm reviving my "letter to the world," even though my friends are the only ones who read it. The majority of my posts will still be about reading. (How could it be my blog otherwise?) But I'll try to work in some news about moving and adjustments to my new home state. Maybe I'll even mention my favorite brand of mustard.

Also, here's a photo of Cadfael, my cat.

(He's a very smart cat, but I should admit that this photo was staged. He wasn't actually reading Joyce.)

*You know who you are.